The edible dead
The glory that was York
Town of tin
Editor Simon Denison
Great Sites: Balladoole
Mark Redknap revisits a Viking boat burial site on the Isle of Man which shed light on the aggressive Viking settlement of British soil in the late 9th century
On the rocky foreshore of Bay ny Carrickey, on the south coast of the Isle of Man, several small hillocks rise up above the Irish Sea at a place called Balladoole. It was on one of these hills that the first modern excavation of a Viking boat burial took place on the island.
The excavation in 1945 was directed by Gerhard Bersu - the German archaeologist responsible for an earlier 'Great Site in this series, Little Woodbury in Wiltshire (see BA August 2000). Although interned as an enemy alien, he had been a refugee from Nazi persecution in Germany, and was allowed by the authorities to excavate prehistoric and later sites during his time on the island, using small parties from the internment camps. His work at Balladoole - the first of three Viking burial sites he uncovered on the island - stands out as a spectacular testimony to Viking activity, and became an archetype for the rite of Viking boat burial in western Britain.
The burial was in fact discovered by accident, while Bersu was investigating the entrance to what he thought was an Iron Age hillfort. The first indication of an unexpected feature was a row of large limestone blocks. Cutting a trench through these, Bersu found a large number of clenched boat-nails beneath a layer of stones. It soon became apparent that the row of large stones had defined the edge of a stone cairn covering a boat burial.
Amongst the large number of nails lay the skeleton of an adult male, who had been laid on his back directly on the bottom of the boat. The warrior (for he had a circular shield) and all his grave goods lay within a discrete area, to one side of the customary position for a central mast-step.
Several items suggested that he had been fully clothed (a ringed-pin, knife, hone and flint strike-a-light, belt buckle and strap-ends), and that his shirt had been of extremely fine textile, possibly linen. His possessions layaround him, including a bit and bridle from his horse at his head, pairs of stirrup mounts and spurs by his feet, a handled iron cauldron, possibly a second cauldron near his left leg, and a shield boss and grip above his knees. One mystery was the apparent - and unusual - absence of offensive weapons, despite the presence of the shield. Loss by later robbing remains a possible explanation, but it may be that the buried man's community simply decided not to include a sword or axe within this grave.
At the man's feet, towards the centre of the boat, lay the incomplete remains of an adult woman, without any grave-goods. In the light of the evidence of the sacrifice of a young girl from a contemporary Manx grave at Ballateare, excavated by Bersu in 1946, it was suggested that these bones might represent a sacrificial victim. The custom of accompanied burial involving female slaves has been identified at Viking sites such as L'Île deGroix (Britanny), Hedeby (Schleswig in northern Germany) and Oseberg (Norway). Her inclusion was therefore thought to reflect the power and wealth of the man buried in the boat. However, so incomplete are her remains that alternative interpretations exist - such as, for example, that the bones originated from an earlier native burial in the vicinity.
The size of the vessel and the diversity of grave goods mark out the occupant as a man of high standing, perhaps one of the leaders of the first wave of Viking land-takers on the island, and later the occupier of one of its larger estates.
The rich assemblage also provides important confirmation of the wide geographical contact of people living around the Irish Sea. The bridle mounts find parallels from the southern Hebridean island of Colonsay and from 10th century Dublin, andsimilar decoration has been identified from Lewis - all items probably originating in a Hiberno-Scandinavian workshop in the Irish Sea region during the late 9th century. The spurs recall those from early 10th century burials in north-western England, and are possibly of Continental origin. More unusual are other Continental elements, such as the silvered and gilded bronze strap-ends and belt buckle decorated with a Carolingian acanthus-derived ornament, suggesting that their manufacture may have been within the borders of the Carolingian world. The iron cauldron is Viking in character.
The objects in the assemblage represent the main western areas of Viking influence and the Scandinavian homeland, reflecting the central position of Man to the shipping routes between Ireland, north-western England and the north of Scotland.
David Wilson, who co-authored the final report with Bersu in 1966, confirmed that the boat must have belonged to the North European tradition of shell-built double-ended hulls made of overlapping planks. The vessel's original length was calculated at about 36ft (11m), comparable with the spread of clenched nails which had fastened the planks together. With allowance for the curvature of bow and stern, the vessel's overall length may even have been up to 6ft (2m) longer, with a beam of about 11ft (3.5m). This is only slightly smaller than the Viking ship from Denmark known as Skuldelev 3 (built in the 1040s), which had an estimated cargo capacity of 4½ tons and needed a minimum crew of five. The Balladoole boat may well have operated as a modest transporter of lightweight, valuable cargoes and been used for a combination of purposes - precisely the sort of medium-sized vessel used to maintain contacts around the Irish Sea.
Settlers and natives
Balladoole played an important role in illuminating the relationship between the first generation of Viking settlers and the Manx inhabitants. The hill on which the burial was found is locally known as 'Chapel Hill' after a small chapel - possibly early Christian in origin - on the site. Moreover, Bersu established that the boat burial directly supplanted earlier Christian 'lintel' graves.
Did this act represent the enforced subjugation of the population? The possibility that the earlier graves had been deliberately slighted by the boat burial, resulting in human remains (some possibly articulated, so only recently buried) being redeposited beneath the mound, has been taken by some as a symbolic demonstration of Viking dominance over the islanders and their Christian rites. Wilson rejected this view, advocating accidental disturbance.
Whatever the truth of this, the location of the boat burial at the edge of a pre-existing cemetery near a chapel, in a prominent coastal location, conveyed a clear message of confident Viking colonialism: 'We have arrived, and are here to stay.' Recent geophysical survey by archaeologists from Bournemouth University, with Manx National Heritage, has shed further light on the extent of the lintel cemetery, the existence of an oval enclosure around the chapel within the cemetery, and a possible Viking structure - although this last remains unproven. Human remains from the underlying lintel graves are being studied for anatomical and forensic information which mayilluminate the population immediately predating the boat burial.
The Viking burial was initially dated to the period ad 850-950. This range can now be narrowed. Following James Graham Campbell's attribution of the main period of pagan burial on the Isle of Man to the first third of the 10th century, the Viking land-taking on the island has recently been redated by Wilson to the late 9th and early 10th century, the very period when areas like Cumbria, Lancashire and Cheshire were also suffering a similar fate.
The discovery - made only six years after the great Anglo-Saxon ship burial at Sutton Hoo on the other side of Britain - highlighted the potency of ship symbolism to the early medieval mind. The journey the warrior embarked on at death was important, although there is little in written sources to substantiate the identification of such boats with the mythical ferry to the other world of the dead. The well-equipped vessel probably also reflected the maritime capability and warrior caste of the deceased, and the role of the seagoing ship as artery and life-line of both land-takers and traders both around the Irish Sea and all over the Viking world.
Clues to the funeral rite were provided by a layer of cremated bone covering the cairn. This was interpreted as the offering of a selection of the dead man's cremated livestock, including horse, ox, pig, sheep or goat, dog and cat. The pyre had perhaps been built on the cairn itself.
New Viking burial sites discovered since Balladoole, such as the small but rich boat grave found at Scar on Orkney, have shed important light on regional variations, both in burial rites and settlement. Balladoole, however, remains a key site for understanding the Viking impact in the West. It is an evocative illustration of a form of burial used in areas of southern Scandinavia for about a millennium, and it helps define the character of early Viking colonialism on the Isle of Man and elsewhere in western Britain.
Mark Redknap is Curator of Medieval & Later Archaeology at the National Museums & Galleries of Wales. His book 'The Vikings in Wales: An Archaeological Quest' was recently published by the National Museum at £14.99. Balladoole is in the care of Manx National Heritage, and is accessible on foot.
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005